A Well-Planned Process: The Key to the Success of the U.S.-North Korea Summit

By April 27, 2018Negotiator's Pause

Written by CMPartners Managing Partner, Elizabeth McClintock


Continuing our periodic posts on potential talks with North Korea, we’d like to offer some additional negotiation analysis in light of recent events. These reflections are a riff on an excellent thought-piece offered in the NY Times Column, The Interpreter, 7 Big Things to Understand about Trump’s Talks with North Korea.

There has been a lot of press of late about North Korea. And for good reason. President Trump’s decision to (probably) accept Kim Jong-Un’s invitation to a bilateral summit offers the tempting possibility that soon steps will be taken to diffuse a historic conflict that has been at risk of erupting into open warfare.

The anticipated summit offers the negotiator a plethora of opportunities for analysis. Many experts – from university professors to the Wilson Center’s Asia Program to NY Times pundits – have offered opinions about the wisdom of such a meeting between the two leaders. Concerns range from North Korea’s history of reneging on their commitments to the international community to the lack of adequate preparation for the summit; from the potential impact of President Trump’s threats to pull out of the Iran deal to the need to enhance viable alternatives to negotiation prior to engaging Mr. Kim. In particular, questions have been raised regarding Mr. Kim’s seriousness about (and the exact meaning of) denuclearization. Nonetheless, the upcoming summit has captivated the world’s attention and raised the prospects for peace on the Korean peninsula.

Structure is Key

From a negotiation perspective, there is (at least) one issue that merits additional scrutiny at this stage, as it is key to the summit’s success and the future US-North Korea relationship – the structure of the process that will be used to plan and execute negotiations with the Kim regime.

The 5Ps

When offering advice to our clients about how to structure a negotiation process, CMPartners encourages the use of a simple, straightforward rubric, the 5 Ps: Purpose, Product, People, Place, and Process. The 5 Ps serve as a checklist, ensuring that critical decisions have been taken into consideration during each phase. At present, it is unclear if President Trump’s team has paid adequate attention to these important process steps.

1. Purpose: The goals of the summit are not entirely clear. President Trump has referred to success only in general terms. During his recent press conference with President Abe of Japan, President Trump stated that, “if we don’t think [the meeting is] going to be successful… we won’t have it.” But what exactly is a “successful meeting”? How will President Trump know if that goal has been achieved? Without a clear, shared purpose, President Trump risks being surprised by Mr. Kim and the world risks nuclear war if diplomacy fails.

2. Product: Directly related to purpose is the product expected from the Trump-Kim summit. A signed agreement on North Korea’s intentions to denuclearize? (One of President Trump’s desires.) A blessing of a peace treaty between North and South Korea? A photo with the two leaders shaking hands?

At present, the two leaders have a fundamental disagreement about the issue at the center of the dispute between North Korea and the rest of the world: denuclearization. The term means very different things to the United States and North Korea. “Past statements suggest that Kim Jong-un’s regime wants arms control talks with Washington, and might denuclearize if both sides reciprocally reduced and eventually eliminated their nuclear weapons… For Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo, on the other hand, “denuclearization” simply means a nuclear weapons-free North Korea…” according to Duyeon Kim, a Seoul-based analyst.

It seems highly improbable that North Korea will denuclearize on its own, as President Trump has suggested, raising questions about whether or not the two sides share the same vision about the product sought from the summit.

3. People: At present, the summit is billed as an historic bilateral meeting between the leaders of the United States and North Korea. Indeed, the summit will be historic, if it actually happens. Never before has a sitting US President met with the leader of North Korea. However, a sustainable peace will not be reached if several other parties are not part of this negotiation process – behind the scenes if not at the table.

Pundits suggest that both Japan and South Korea are concerned that President Trump will agree to less than full denuclearization of North Korea for the optics of a “win” at the summit. Equally important, China, who plays the role of key interlocutor with North Korea, seems to be sidelined in current preparations for the summit. Yet, China’s participation in the process is critical if economic pressure on North Korea is to be sustained.

The bite of economic sanctions seems to have played a big role in bringing North Korea to the table. That leverage could potentially be lost if China does not feel that it is fully part of this process, as it may be willing to sacrifice the gains made through sanctions to the need to reassert its relationship with North Korea and the primacy of its role in the negotiations.

4. Place: This fourth element has not yet been shared with the public. However, as has been underscored in relation to the historic upcoming Inter-Korean Summit, the choice of venue can play an important and symbolic role in a negotiation process. Will the venue symbolize a ‘concession’ on the part of one or the other party or will it allow all participants to save face? What broader message will it signal to the leaders’ respective constituents – Détente? Strength? Intransigence? Planning for a detail as seemingly insignificant as location can have an important impact on the success of the summit.

5. Process: Finally, how does the US Administration intend to manage the talks with Mr. Kim? What is the agenda? Who will be allowed to offer inputs into that agenda? What work has been done in advance to prepare the leaders for the summit? What are the guidelines for post-conference communiqués? Is the summit meant to be a one-off event? If not, how will the subsequent meetings be planned for and presented in the course of this summit?

Many North Korea experts worry that the Trump Administration has not learned the lessons from past interactions with North Korea, and there seem to be few in the current administration who truly understand the regime and its intentions. Such a gap in information at this early stage of the preparations could lead to disastrous results. More critically, beginning the negotiations at the leadership level, without first having laid the groundwork with teams of substantive and issue specialists is a dangerous strategy. As expert Victor Cha has expressed, “Failed negotiations at the summit level leave all parties with no other recourse for diplomacy.”

The upcoming summit between the United States and North Korea could be an exciting moment in the quest to rid the world of nuclear weapons. In taking such a bold step and by not remaining hostages to the past (broken relations, failed negotiations, troubled alliances), Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un have an historic opportunity to make great progress towards sustainable peace.

However, if the negotiation process is poorly planned and ineffectively implemented, the risks are far greater than a failed summit; if President Trump is to be believed, there is a real risk of war with North Korea. It might behoove those preparing the meetings to run through that checklist of the 5 Ps prior to their departure for the summit.

Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • Joe Betancourt says:

    Excellent take on the negotiations!

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